Thinking of a live action Underdog made me sad,
But the truth about this movie is: it is not half bad
Let’s be honest. Underdog is probably one of the least likely candidates for a movie adaptation. The cartoon super-hero is thirty years past his prime, existing over that time in just over 100 episodes that represent what animation has to look like when it’s churned out on a weekly basis. Yet, strangely, somehow the canine crusader has been targeted for a live-action summer blockbuster movie. Even stranger is the fact that the resulting picture is an enjoyable family picture that has something to offer to both Underdog newcomers and fans who have stuck with the show over the course of its life.
Clearly crediting its origins, Underdog opens with a montage of classic cartoon clips showing the dog hero saving the day against his villains, most specifically Simon Barsinister, the evil genius mastermind. Underdog himself (voiced by Jason Lee) tells us this is his story, but that the cartoon clips are getting ahead of the rest of the story. Transition to the live action picture which serves as an origin story for the super hero.
Originally a failed-police dog, the hero who would be Underdog is captured for experimentation by one of Doctor Barsinister’s henchmen. Before the genius can inject our hero with DNA, the dog attempts to escape, resulting in a lab accident that renders the dog with super powers and disfigures Barsinister (Peter Dinklage). Yes, it’s one of those stories where the hero and villain are born from the same incident, but it’s subtle enough that it doesn’t detract from the story, particularly because Barsinister isn’t exactly a nice guy to begin with.
The dog is picked up by Dan Unger (James Belushi), a former police officer who quit the force when his wife died. He tries to give the dog to his son, Jack (Alex Neuberger), as yet another gesture in their strained relationship, naming the dog Shoeshine because he constantly licks their shoes. Slowly Jack and Shoeshine form a strong relationship, made even stronger when Jack discovers his dog’s secret powers. Jack urges Shoeshine to become a hero, but all the dog wants is a steady home where he doesn’t feel like a reject. When Simon Barsinister rears his ugly head again, there’s no choice to but to save the day as Underdog!
Although this is a super hero origin story, there’s quite a bit more to the movie than just that. It’s also the story of a boy and his dog, the story of a dysfunctional family looking to rebuild, and a story of underdogs on a more literal level, between the police dog who failed, to the police dad who quit, to Jack who is an underdog in school. Each of the stories gets a fair amount of time in the spotlight without feeling like any of them are robbing the movie of its super hero basis. It’s a well crafted story that deserves praise for writers Adam Rifkin, Joe Piscatella, and Craig A. Williams.
On a performance level the movie is a bit varied. Jason Lee provides that deep, insightful narrative voice over that has worked so well on “My Name is Earl,” only without the Southern twang (and, frankly, for a more insightful character). Patrick Warburton gives a typical Warbutonish performance as evil sidekick Cad. Most of the digitally enhanced animal performances are pretty good, although for some reason Polly Pureheart’s dog-talk movements felt very wrong compared to others. Only Peter Dinklage truly rises above with a performance that begins very subdued and builds like a volcano. Regardless of the situation, Dinklage sells his character, making it clear that he took this just as serious as any of his other roles. On the flip side, just the appearance of James Belushi makes it hard to believe he’s supposed to have been this well decorated cop. He looks older and very, very tired (the bags under his eyes could have gotten separate billing they are so dominant). Alex Neuberger is a fairly new performer and that inexperience shows, although it’s easy to write that off to his youth.
For real Underdog fans this movie is chock-full of goodies. From the massive collateral damage created by Underdog, especially with his inability to land, to his rhyming couplets and his signature phrase (“There’s no need to fear, Underdog is here!”) there are lots of things to look for. Even the original source of Underdog’s powers, the secret energy pill, is there in a fashion. None of it is done in a demeaning manner or played tongue-in-cheek like so many other adaptations. It’s just there for you to catch if you are familiar with the franchise, and the way they are played left me grinning. If you aren’t as much a fan, there are still some fun allusions to other origin stories like Spider-Man and Superman, and even a totally clever nod to Disney’s Lady and the Tramp.
As is sadly becoming standard for family movies, there are a few minor issues common to the genre. There are probably more references to dogs eating crap than there really need to be, and the climax of the movie comes to a screeching halt so the family can have a tender moment that solves all of their problems. As a super hero movie, however, this picture is actually a lot better than I expected and surpasses some of the more mundane origin stories out there. As a movie, Underdog is as unlikely, and as surprisingly successful, as the hero himself.